On Writing: Populating a Novel with Characters part 1(ish)

I’ve been stewing on this topic for a while now, and like many writing subjects Characters could probably take up a whole book, let alone a blog post – nonetheless I’m going to try and explore a few insights that I picked up from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel which oddly wasn’t majorly focused on character outside the MC, but the few pointers were really insightful ones.

caricaturas en vectores

I suspect I’ll have to do another post about what makes an MC or not, but for now I’m going to assume a solid MC has been developed, and just going to talk about the rest of the merry gang that makes up a novel’s characters.

First of all I might address how I used to develop characters and how now I’ve realized that isn’t quite right, or probably more accurately didn’t lead to as stronger writing as it could. Ironically my characters tended to come from a logical place or essentially randomly generated. Which probably sounds oddly dialectical, however I bet many writers have done the same. By ‘a logical place’ I mean I generated characters based on who would normally or rationally be around the MC or the setting. For example if the MC was a teenager then I’d generate friends, family, teachers and so forth. Or if I was going random I’d already have a character that I wanted in a story somewhere so I would just insert them.

Now you might be thinking what is wrong with logically inventing characters, or using characters you’ve already invented? Well it’s not wrong per se, it’s more what is missing from such a process, i.e. I didn’t invent characters based on the MC’s story arc needs. And this is the crux of what I want to get at in this post. In my early (ha pretty much in most of my writing) I haven’t had a good sense or understanding of how other characters can deepen our main story.

In my defense I don’t think its that easy to get one’s head around. I’ve heard for years terms like ‘foil’ and ‘subplot’ but it hasn’t really been until reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel that the interaction of Main Characters and Secondary, really sunk in.

One of the issues, which again probably warrants more page time, is the distinction between what some people call the A story and the B story, others might call is the context and the subtext – basically the difference between overt and external tensions and the ‘internal’ thematic and characterization tensions.

For example when one sits down and reads Lord of the Rings and we see the Fellowship get put together we don’t automatically realize that the eight other characters aren’t their to help Frodo dispose of the One Ring, they are really there to make Frodo’s journey to dispose of the one ring a much deeper journey by: providing guidance (Gandalf) antagonism (Boromir) contrasting form of heroism (Sam).

What I’m trying to say is it would be easy to try and generate your Epic Fantasy squad by wondering what sort of team would be needed to get to Mordor, when what you really should be reflecting on is how the squad will flesh out the MC’s journey as a character.

Even writing this is starting to sound like gobbledygook to me, so to continue with the same story LoTRs I’ll try to explain how characters can deepen the MC’s journey.

So Frodo in Lord of the Rings is basically a fairly ordinary, humble individual bar their deep love for The Shire and a strong motivation towards doing what is right. The nature of his journey is to continually make difficult moral decisions that ultimately mean the one ring can be destroyed, however the journey is so difficult and traumatic that The Shire is not saved for Frodo.

A lot of people say that Sam is the true hero of LoTR, and he is definitely a hero, but I’m, afraid his literary existence owes very much to emphasizing Frodo’s journey. Isn’t it that much more heartbreaking to see Frodo suffer in contrast to Sam who is able to return to an idyllic life after everything? It’s much more intense to see Frodo interact with Gollum and show mercy, when Sam is also present suggesting they do not.

Anyway to repeat the point, it’s easy to assume that two hobbits simply makes more sense for sneaking into Mordor than one, but ultimately the point is that Frodo’s journey has that much more depth and impact when compared and contrasted with Sam’s.

So there are many ways that secondary characters interact with an MC’s story:

Same but different: Often a secondary character will have a similar story arc to an MC, this is particularly common in romance stories where a friend of the MC is also unlucky in love, however will often secure or resolve their relationship before the MC – this often emphasizes the MC’s fatal flaw or problem – and hits home how if that problem isn’t resolved they won’t succeed.

Foil: This word gets thrown around a lot but often not explained too well. A foil provides contrast to the main character, often emphasizing the MC’s good points. For example a side-kick is often a super-hero’s ‘foil’ they’ll be on the same side but the side-kick will often not be quite as brave, moral, or strong as the hero. Villains and Antagonists can also be foils often having direct opposite traits of a MC, although clever writers will often make some points of similarity. A foil isn’t necessarily a ‘hype-man’ for the MC either a Foil can also highlight the MC’s flaws.

The point of a Foil is to bring more attention and exploration of the MC’s character – we will often see a Foil succeed or fail, again in contrast to an MC’s traits, for example a common superhero story is the side-kick who sick of living in the shadow of the hero tries to save the day on their own – only to result in the hero having to save them and the day after they fail.

Choices: Another function of secondary characters is they can represent or show the outcome or nature of different choices. In some respects Boromir from LoTR represents the choice to not take the difficult and sacrificial path of destroying the One Ring.

I’m actually going to keep studying this topic and possibly come back for round two – the main point of this post is to talk about how to generate characters, not based on the logic of the story context, but the subtext of the MC’s character development. And while I’ve only mentioned three, I think there are many many ways that other characters can deepen the story of the MC.

(which I will explore further next time)

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